Home / General / Book Review: Kurkpatrick Dorsey: Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas

Book Review: Kurkpatrick Dorsey: Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas



The greatest environmental issue of the twenty-first century is climate change. The science is nearly unanimous that humans are causing the climate to warm rapidly because of emissions of greenhouse gases. If anything, scientists are wrong about the impacts by underestimating them and as such, we have seen slowly more dire predictions of what this planet will look like in a century. Yet virtually nothing gets done to stop it. Entrenched economic interests use strategies ranging from sophisticated greenwashing campaigns to blunt purchasing of politicians through campaign donations to muddy the waters for the general public. With scientists not trained to make definitive statements about their work and because of the nature of scientific exploration itself harboring uncertainty, the public is easily confused and the impetus for doing nothing remains strong. On the international front, individual nations may take action but each nation ultimately wants to look out for its own industrial base and economic well-being, hoping others take the lead instead. You have developing economies like Brazil, India, and China demanding exceptions to carbon regulations in order to even the playing field with developed nations. In the end, the science barely matters. It’s all about power and entrenched interests. Unless some external force comes along to change the playing field, it’s unlikely any of this changes substantively. Meanwhile, humanity’s ability to soften the impact declines daily.

I was considering this scenario while reading Kurkpatrick’s Dorsey’s 2013 book on whaling diplomacy, for the story is quite similar. When we think of whaling, we probably have two images in mind. The first is the 19th century whaling industry popularly personified in Moby Dick. The second is Japan in the present, including the famed direct action protests against it. But Dorsey wants us to focus on whaling in the twentieth century, long after the decline of the famed 19th century industry and leading up to the modern demonization of Japan for its insistence on harvesting whales. In Whales and Nations, he demonstrates that many of the dynamics of the current climate debate were also part of the whaling debates. It is not commonly known that the 20th century saw a whaling revival based primarily in waters off Antarctica where large number of whales had survived the 19th century onslaught. New technologies made harvesting these profitable and realistic. First, the development of the modern harpoon, which set off an explosive charge inside the whale upon impact, allowed for their efficient slaughter. Machines to pump compressed air into dead whales allowed them to remain floating after their death, ensuring their preservation for the market. New shipping technologies made the processing of the whales on board ships easier and safer. Large ships became floating whale factories. New whale products also developed, especially margarine and industrial lubricants. Norway and Britain led this new whaling charge, with other nations, including Japan, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union later becoming major players.

Of course there were only so many whales. And everyone knew what had happened to most of the world’s whales in the 19th century. So almost immediately, the issue of conservation arose. The problem was that each nation had entrenched interests and while they might theoretically want to conserve the whales for the future, they ultimately wanted others to do that first and prioritized short-term returns on investment instead of long-term conservation efforts. Complicating this was the fact that there was almost no scientific knowledge of whales, so whaling nations could claim there was no evidence of over-harvesting the resource. A weak international regulatory system slowly developed but there was little political effort to really harvest whales sustainably, even as the scientific knowledge of them grew. Inspectors were placed on the ships, but those inspectors had to live under a captain’s authority and that led to a predictable form of regulatory capture and cheating the system. Eventually, the International Whaling Commission was created in 1946 to regulate postwar whaling as the fleets again returned to the harvest. It had limited success but continued to face the problem of nations threatening to drop out if their whaling is limited too much. On top of this was the widespread over-harvesting by gigantic Soviet ships that really threatened the whales’ continued existence. Harvesting remained at unsustainable rates and growing science demonstrating this proved insufficient to make much of a difference, but at least the IWC maintained a functional organization that could later be used as a lever of change.

What changed this scenario had very little to do with science, conventional politics, or diplomacy. It was widespread environmental protest that convinced nations that banning whaling entirely was the best move. Dorsey argues that the key moment was the recording of whale sounds. Marketed as “songs,” these recordings tapped into people’s emotions at the same time that millions of Americans and people around the world were showing unprecedented concern over the exploitation of nature. Almost immediately, a grassroots effort sprung up to protect whales that were now no longer seen as just some giant fish but rather sentient beings not dissimilar from humans. Never mind that no one knew what these sounds even mean to whales. It was pure emotionalism. I certainly don’t see this as a problem. After all, there is a ton of evidence that science is never enough to protect species or ecosystems. Even in the case of the northern spotted owl, where science was necessary to lock up the remaining ancient forests in the Northwest, this wouldn’t have happened without massive grassroots protest and lawsuits. Dorsey is more ambivalent about this emotionalism; such an impetus for policy changes after all is unlikely to protect the krill whales rely upon since they aren’t charismatic megafauna. But what are you going to do. One never knows how change is going to occur or what is going to move people to action. But putting the impact of whaling in the sight of American and global citizens certainly helped. Groups like Greenpeace began directly confronting the whalers, filming the slaughter of whales and sending those images around the world. That only contributed to the growing outrage. Between 1976 and 1982, the whaling states lost their power to fend off attacks on the practice and in the latter year a moratorium passed that banned most whaling throughout the world, a huge victory for environmentalists.

Today, with less attention paid to whaling, the Japanese have been able to push back to some extent within the IWC, primarily by granting economic aid to poor IWC members in exchange for votes. That doesn’t mean it is going to overturn the larger whaling bans, but it does mean that new ones are unlikely to be enacted.

Ultimately, I think the broader lesson Dorsey offers for the general reader and the environmentalist is that it is going to take the same kind of outside force to move international players on climate change toward a real fight against it. How that happens, I don’t know. But it won’t be because the science finally convinces people or because a few nations suddenly take leadership on their own because it’s the right thing to do. Like most environmental issues, it is almost certainly going to require something that spurs the public to massive direct action confronting polluters and the nations that refuse to take climate change seriously. When (or if) that ever happens, the international frameworks already set up to regulate emissions, however weak currently, will likely be the agencies that these activists and the governments responding to those protests use as the mechanisms of change. Dorsey’s story isn’t exactly a happy one because of the relative unlikelihood of conventional politics or scientific knowledge being enough to solve problems, but at least we know it has happened in the past and can happen again in the future.

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  • keta

    I agree it’s unlikely that scientific knowledge or conventional politics will be enough to solve the problem. But when the head of the federal agency in charge of that science actively works against the scientists studying the problem then solutions from that sector might never be found.

    If science is going to have a fighting chance here politicians quashing this research need to be tossed out on their ears.

    • keta

      Oh, and fuck the Japanese whalers.

      Seriously, a tax-payer funded “research” project that kills mammals that nobody eats? Pure madness.

      • Murc

        … wait, what? Seriously? They aren’t even eating the stuff?

        I completely understand the impulse to go “No, fuck you” when people try to dictate your actions, but that’s no way to craft policy.

        Also, I’ve had whale and it is delicious. Letting the meat go to waste is just a crime.

        • ThrottleJockey

          And apparently very high in protein! I don’t know how old that ad is (70 years old? 100 years old? 150 years old?) that Loomis pastde at the top but it’s shocking that marketers have been trying to promote eating protein for as long as they have. Like the average person doesn’t already eat three times the amount of protein they need!

          • I think it’s mid-20th century. Canadian.

            • Woodrowfan

              I’m thinking 1910s by the hair and clothing.

              • Hogan

                1919, it turns out. Wartime meat shortage.

                • Ah, thanks!

                • ThrottleJockey

                  Wow, a hundred years ago they were pushing protein as much as we do. I guess some things are eternal. Thanks, Hogan, thanks Loomis!

          • Hogan

            I don’t think they’re pushing protein so much as they’re pushing OUR REALLY CHEAP protein.

            • ThrottleJockey

              LOL, true…I guess Chia Seeds weren’t really a thing then.

            • Molehill

              Also it’s PALATABLE.

              Unlike most of the rest of what they were eating, I presume.
              Just another reminder that the good old days were mostly pretty shitty.

        • Snarki, child of Loki

          “They aren’t even eating the stuff?”

          IIRC, they’re giving away a lot of the whale meat to primary schools. Gotta hook the next generation, doncha know.

          “I’ve had whale and it is delicious.”

          Old tribesmen in New Guinea say the same about long pig. All the vitamins you need, it’s got!

        • BiloSagdiyev

          From what I’ve read, “No, fuck you!” is really a huge part of it for the Japanese, because of WWII. Adding a special twist to it was that MacArthur encouraged them to get back into it after the war for economic reasons. So they’re tired of hearing what America has to say about it.

          (Also, to a great many Japanese, they’re all just … fish. Really. Watch “The Cove”, if you have the stomach for it. That documentary is specifically about dolphins.)

          From what I’ve heard, whale and dolphin are acquired tastes that Japanese people who grew up in little fishing villages like because that’s what they grew up on– and that’s a very small % of Japanese people.

          And speaking of the twists and turns of a thing like this, once it was pointed out that dolphin meat had mercury in it, that got their attention, because of Minamata. Mercury freaks them out. But whether or not to even test the meat, yeah, a poltical football, just like here, some people prefer continued ignorance to potentially difficult future facts.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Human nature is human nature.

        • BlueLoom

          Yikes! I had it once and found it horrible. I’m not sure whether I took a second bite after the first one.

          Everyone fusses about Japan. If you have a very strong stomach, look at these images from the Faroe Islands whale kill. These kills are carried out on large schools of Pilot Whales, and IIRC, the islanders herd the whales into a small bay or end of a fjord and then kill them as the whales are forced (by the boats doing the herding)to beach themselves.

          “Ahh, but it’s our culture,” they say. Well, over-killing buffalo was part of the (European) culture in the US west till we woke up and found we had come close to exterminating the species.

          • twbb

            And the Faroe Islands is home to a huge, longitudinal, decades-long study of the effect of mercury (much of it from whale) on neurodevelopmental issues which found that yep, the whale meat does cause problems in children.

  • SqueakyRat

    In the case of global warming, mobilization of public opinion is just not going to happen. The large-scale photogenic horrors that might get people off their asses will come after it’s far too late for any effective action.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I don’t know what counts as sufficiently “large scale”, but I suspect that it won’t be more than a couple of years (which may, of course, already be “far too late for any effective action”…) until the Marshall Islands by themselves are supplying plentiful photogenic horrors suitable for USAn consumption. (Bangladesh, too, of course; but, Muslims.)

    • CaptainBringdown


      Absent some kind of monumental technological breakthrough(s), it’s hard for me to see how we’re not doomed.

    • AndersH

      You could make the argument that the current wave of refugees from Syria is in large part due to violence that happened because of climate change. It is certainly large scale and should certainly inspire a call to action!

      You could also argue that we are fucked.

      • CaptainBringdown

        These both sound like the same argument to me. Perhaps that was intentional.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        If NASA spotted a planet-killer asteroid headed for Earth, predicted impact in 50 years, you’d have the same ‘it’s all a libtard conspiracy!’ types making sure that nothing was done in time.

        Plus the end-timers also, too.

        Any deity looking down at humanity would have to shake their head and mutter “fuckers were too stupid to live”.

        • Rob in CT

          In that case, they’d be ignored by a large majority of the population and definitely by the elites, though.

          That’s an immediate threat (that can be seen and tracked as it comes in) we could sic our best engineers on (plus maybe Bruce Willis and some oil drillers ;) ), and the Right still likes engineers. And it’s a one-off. No need to even consider serious lifestyle changes, intervention into markets, and so forth.

          I don’t think majorities on the Right reject climate science because they’re anti-science fundies. There’s a group of them that are, but many more are fine with science so long as it doesn’t tell them anything too uncomfortable. No, they reject climate science because of the implications: if the climate scientists are right, government isn’t the problem, it’s (at least a large part of) the solution. Response: denial.

        • NonyNony

          No you wouldn’t.

          I mean, yes, you’d have the idiots saying it’s all a conspiracy, but they’d be ignored.

          Because there is nobody who makes money off of the asteroid hurtling towards the planet, so there’s nobody to use the fact that a certain percentage of the population is gullible to drive them to block action on stopping the asteroid.

          (What you’d likely get are 5-6 different competing ideas on how to stop the asteroid’s impact, some of which will be profitable for different groups of people. And those folks would exploit the gullibility of a certain percentage of the population to try to get their particular profitable solution to be the one selected for implementation. But you wouldn’t get the outright denial locking up action on the asteroid because there’s nobody whose paycheck depends on doing nothing about the asteroid.)

  • Joe

    “some kind of outside force” — well, the Pope tried.

  • Rob in CT

    I could argue this one either way, though I tend toward pessimism (largely for the reason identified by SqueakyRat – lag time between the carbon pollution and the climate impact, plus the obvious tragedy of the commons issue).

    The optimistic take involves:

    1) The sheer severity of the threat. Unlike other pollution or conservation battles, we’re not fighting over protecting a particular species of owl or cleaning up a particular area… we’re talking about the survival of humanity here.

    2) The fact that the Ozone problem caused by CFCs was dealt with, despite the tragedy of the commons and lag-time issues (IIRC, the Ozone hole just recently peaked and is only now beginning to close). Though this is a pretty weak argument b/c we had to ban one particular kind of chemical, not alter our entire energy generation model.

    3) Technology. I think it’s possible that continued advances in green(er) power (and energy storage) could save us from the most catastrophic scenarios, even without a global come to Jesus moment. I waffle back and forth between thinking this is pipe-dream territory or realistic.

    4) The Youts, as Vinny would say. Generational change resulting in different politics. Complete with magic pony, of course.

    • Rob in CT

      Damnit, too slow. I realize #4 is pretty weak too, given that we’re running out of time. By the time the Youts take over, we may have already thoroughly screwed ourselves.

      • ThrottleJockey

        I was reading yesterday that two-thirds of Americans support our entry into global agreement to reduce global warming. So there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

        • Rob in CT

          A mile wide and an inch deep. But yes, that goes in the positive column.

          • BiloSagdiyev

            Yes, a mile wide and an inch deep. Diplomats far away should agree to a thingie on paper? Yes! I should drive something less than 5,000 lbs. or wear a sweater inside my own house? You go to hell!

  • BigHank53

    I’ve been meaning to link to this ever since I found it on Charles Stross’s blog. It’s a three-chapter sample from a book written by an ecologist on what full-bore global warming would look like over the next 400,000 years. Short version: humanity is gonna survive. Technological civilization, probably not so much.

    • Brett

      I don’t believe that. The problem is the time frame – these are changes taking place over decades or longer, and if there’s one feature that’s true about technological civilization these days it’s that you can have massive shifts over relatively short periods of time when needed. Not exactly happy shifts, but changes – see China, or even the postwar US’s reshaping of the landscape due to suburbanization.

      If you want to argue that civilization will not survive climate change, you basically need to argue that it will kill off the fundamentals – i.e. we won’t be able to grow enough food, operate infrastructure, produce enough energy, and so forth. But climate change isn’t expected to wreck all agriculture, or make it impossible to generate electricity and use it in ways to replace machinery that’s reliant on fossil fuels today.

      • BigHank53

        If you add up the actual value of the elements in your smartphone–the silicon in the chips and the fiberglass circuit board, the copper, lithium, gold, aluminum, etc–you’ll find that it comes to a couple dollars at most. The other few hundred dollars represent the hundreds of thousands of kilowatts that have been poured into it.

        There are probably much less energy-intensive ways of refining metals and producing microelectronics than the ones we’re currently using. It’s difficult, however, to conduct that sort of research when the lab keeps flooding, all your grad students have to spend three hours a day standing in food distribution lines, and you only have power half the time. Yes, we have decades. But they’re going to be decades where everyone has to move their port facilities, deal with crop failures, and cope with influxes of refugees all at the same time.

        I believe we as a species are capable of it. On the other hand, I’ve read some history and my faith in humanity’s ability to avoid the pitfalls of totalitarianism and religious mania are not high.

        • Brett

          Countries have conducted major research literally in the middle of war-time, when they had to deal with rationing and risk to life and limb. I’m pretty sure climate change isn’t going to stop them, especially since it happens at an even slower pace with less prospect for sudden disruption.

  • Derelict

    My own guess is that the kick-start for change will be when climate change either costs corporations too much money, or when doing something about climate change becomes a profitable business.

    Until then, as long as there is money in carbon fuels and at least one person with a PhD who says “I dunno about all this science”, there’s no reason to expect action.

    • Rob in CT

      As the economic power of the green power industry grows, we might see them more and more able to pull policy their way. Which won’t be an unalloyed good, of course (ethanol subsidies, yay!).

      • That there is a full-scale war on green power by the Republican Party does not leave me confident about this growing economic power, although it may grow significantly in other nations.

        • Derelict

          Indeed. The disappearance of tax credits and net-metering for household solar installations should tell us something about the war against green energy. And the Kochs (among others) have been lobbying for penalties for homes with solar on the basis that such reductions in household electricity use from the grid discourage investment by power companies in green energy.

          • Rob in CT

            True, true.

            Thankfully the anti-net metering thing hasn’t happened in CT (there was an increase to the monthly grid connection fee but I have no problem with that kind of increase, provided it’s mild/moderate).

            Flipside: solar leasing was a pretty nifty development (look at that, financial innovation that doesn’t obviously suck!). It is reliant, at least for now, on subsidies/tax credits so I know it too is under threat.

        • Area Man

          They wouldn’t be waging war against green energy if it weren’t a serious threat to the fossil fuel industry. Keep in mind that ten years ago they were happy to pass green energy subsidies and whatnot as a compromise measure because they were convinced that green energy would never achieve significant market share.

  • Bruce Vail

    ‘Autobiography of a Shipping Man’ by Erling Naess contains some good material about the effort to close down the whaling business. He gives some credit to the big multinationals like Colgate-Palmolive that just stopped buying whale products as a response to the international publicity campaigns.

  • Ormond

    I think there are obvious parallels between whale conservation and the debate on anthropogenic climate change which point to an obvious solution for mobilizing the public. What we need is a Star Trek movie that uses climate change as the McGuffin. A meagre 10% commission on all box office receipts and the thanks of a grateful humanity are all I ask in payment for bringing this idea to the world.

  • Mike in DC

    Well, the Fossil Fuel Industry is kind of a mega-industry which includes the Coal, Oil and Natural Gas industries, the public utilities industry(i.e., electrical power distributors/providers) and the automotive industry. To the extent there are manufacturers who may require fossil fuel based power generation onsite, they are members too. Plus the shipping industry is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, the airline industry, etc. On the other side, you basically have solar and wind power/tech companies, plus Tesla Motors. And environmental groups. Unless renewables and electric cars advance by leaps and bounds(and, to be fair, there’s some evidence to suggest they are advancing substantially–Tesla is about to introduce a 30k electric on the market,e.g.), the market by itself is not going to just step aside for the new non-polluting/low-polluting tech to take over. It takes public pressure leading to political pressure. On the other hand, if electric cars for example suddenly become immensely popular, you could split off the automotive industry over time, which would weaken the coalition against change. If the return on investment for renewables became more appealing for the utility providers, they might also split off. Coal and oil will fight to the bitter end, though. They can’t monopolize wind and sunlight, and the tech to lower their emissions also lowers their profit margins. It’s hard to make profit-obsessed sociopaths care about stuff that affects other people.

    • joe from Lowell

      Well, the Fossil Fuel Industry is kind of a mega-industry which includes the Coal, Oil and Natural Gas industries, the public utilities industry(i.e., electrical power distributors/providers) and the automotive industry.

      Indeed. Hence the Obama administration’s strategy of culling the coal industry from the herd and keeping the rest relatively happy. There’s no way to take them all on at once and win anything if they’re all pulling together.

  • LeeEsq

    Whales had the benefit of being large, charismatic megafauna that people could project emotions on. They were also less necessary for people because of electricity and petroleum made whale oil unnecessary for lighting and palm oil served as a replacement for other uses.

    Climate is probably less subject to projected emotions because it is not a living, charismatic megafauna and people are still dependent on petroleum and natural gas. My guess is that any emotionalism that will lead to grass-roots demand on action is going to be based on a decreased living standard because of global warming. Chinese people protesting against the smog of large cities like Beijing and people arguing that something has to be done so habitable areas don’t get flooded with climate change refugees.

    If climate change needs charismatic animals to further the cause than maybe we can use polar bears and penguins to invoke action. You can get people to protest in order to save polar bears and penguins.

  • Brett

    I think it will be a series of mega-disasters in the 2020s that finally gets the US and other countries to take this much more seriously. Imagine the southeastern US getting hit with not just one but multiple top strength hurricanes in a single hurricane season, causing immense devastation over the course of several months and a rescue and repair effort that gets derailed because the next hurricane has come along.

    A single bad hurricane (Katrina or Sandy) didn’t lead to much more widespread concern about climate change. But a series of bad ones in a single year? I think that would do it for many folks and politicians.

    • Rob in CT

      Florida is SO due.

      • Brett

        Exactly. It’s a swing state too, no less – I’ll bet that Floridians are going to suddenly become much more concerned about climate change if they get wrecked over by hurricanes twice in a single year, not to mention rising sea levels getting into their freshwater supplies.

        The response should be interesting. I personally think the US will go the full Netherlands, and re-shape effectively the entire East Coast to resist sea level rise at enormous expense rather than abandoning coastal areas to the waves. There’s just too many people living there, and too much valuable real estate in the hands of politically connected rich people.

        • Rob in CT

          The engineering challenge there is enormous. The cost would be staggering (granted, so is the cost of abandoning all that prime real estate!). I think that certain areas will end up with engineered protection (NYC in particular) and a lot more will be abandoned over time.

          Also, too: hurricane season on the East coast has been real quiet of late. I get the idea that more warmth = more energy = likely more and/or more powerful storms, that’s all pretty iffy ’cause climate is so complex. We might *not* see more and more powerful hurricanes striking the US.

          And even if we do, in order to result in action I think the upswing in bad storms would have to be large enough to be no doubt about it instead of eh, could be natural variation. Which probably won’t happen.

          • Brett

            I’m happy if that’s true, and we don’t get worse hurricanes from climate change. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really leave anything else except sea level rises that might have the same impact in the popular consciousness – the droughts haven’t done it, hot summers haven’t done it, crop failures haven’t done it (the US had a major crop failure in 2012 that sparked riots in poor countries along with Russia’s export restrictions, but Americans barely noticed), and so forth.

        • NonyNony

          I’ll bet that Floridians are going to suddenly become much more concerned about climate change if they get wrecked over by hurricanes twice in a single yea

          Do you know anyone in Florida?

          The folks I know in Florida who aren’t already worried about climate change are far more likely to blame bad weather as a punishment sent by God to the state for putting up with the debauchery and sin going on in Miami than they are to admit that climate change might be occurring.

        • Joshua

          Are Floridians even allowed to talk about climate change?

        • twbb

          The entire East Coast couldn’t be re-shaped like that; it would just cost too much. Certain enclaves like large cities, wealthier towns, military bases, etc., sure. They’ll build a dyke to protect a few dozen blocks of Miami Beach, but they’re not going to do the same 800 miles up the cost.

    • I guess I am skeptical. I think it would lead to a lot of talk about Jesus punishing us for our sins more than climate change.

      • rea

        It is all the fault of gay marriage, since obviously human-caused climate change is absurd.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Industrial lubricants: automatic transmission fluid contained sperm whale oil until the early 1970’s:


    The 1986 whaling moratorium exempted aboriginal peoples at a low level, and that includes some people in the Caribbean:


  • BiloSagdiyev

    Is that Canadian whaler fat-shaming that woman?

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